At least, statistically. There are 32 games left in the season–15 of which are at home over the course of February and March. February will be key for the team. Nine of the 11 games during the month will be battled for in the confines of the Prudential Center.
So, outside of a miracle, what needs to happen in New Jersey to give the team a chance to move up in the conference standings. Mostly, its scoring goals. The team has scored only 113 goals in 50 games–that’s only 2.25 goals per game. Compare that to conference leading Washington, who have scored 160 goals in 49 games–3.27 goals per game. That one extra goal per game is the difference between first and last place in the conference.
But a team need not score that many goals to get into the playoffs. Right now, Ottawa is in 6th place in the East with only 127 goals in 47 games (2.70 goals per game).
Ottawa has been an excellent defensive team from the start of the season, so when they score, they make it very hard for other teams to come back. It is the perfect example of what the Devils should be striving to be. The Sens are a very hard working team, they clog up the neutral zone, take the speed out of the game, and they wait for opportunities. Then they pounce, quickly and decisively.
There have been moments when New Jersey has been able to play that sort of game, and when they do, it works. But when they try to be an offense first team, it does not work for long. And absent a complete rebuild, long-term, this team is still a defense-first type of organization. And therein lies the problem.
If you are a defense-first team, you cannot have a top pairing defenseman whose plus/minus rating is -23. And you need to win faceoffs to control the puck.
So, how do the Devils get from here to being contenders? The answer, unfortunately, is to look long term. It is not happening for this team this season. But there are things the team can do to prepare for a much brighter future, and not too far into the future.
The first suggestion would be make use of the most tradable assets at the deadline and stockpile defensemen. Outside of Taylor Hall and Cory Schneider, everyone on the NHL roster should be movable. Certainly, PA Parenteau should be bringing back a prospect or young player or two. And what about Michael Cammalleri? He will be further beyond his prime before the Devils will be Cup contenders, so try to get something for him now.
The Devils need young D, and I was frankly very surprised last summer when the team did not draft toward defense. Instead New Jersey stockpiled forwards. Since that was the case, what needs to happen now is load up on young D-men.
Although you may say that Damon Severson and Jon Merrill are on the roster and are young, it is not clear to me that either will be leading the defensive corps in years to come. If the Devils could get one or two potential top to second pairing defensemen out of the trade deadline, it would be great. Then they must go for a top defensive prospect in the draft. It is the only way, they become a Cup contender in the next 3-5 years.
And it is my second suggestion. Go for the blueline. And then go for a lunch pail team. Hard workers, ala Wiles Wood, will go great with Hall, Henrique, and Zacha. When you add guys like Michael McLeod and Joey Anderson, there will be enough talent to get the job done. Add excellent, hard-working two-way prospects in the middle rounds and the Devils will have the makings of an outstanding team.